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Hillsborough School Board surprises, saying no to six charters

A seventh school is getting a shorter contract as the board’s Tuesday night vote signals a change in attitude toward charters.
Kids Community College Preparatory High School at 11513 McMullen Road is one of three Kids Community College schools 
in Riverview. The Hillsborough School Board voted Tuesday to deny the high school's contract renewal, leaving its future uncertain.
Kids Community College Preparatory High School at 11513 McMullen Road is one of three Kids Community College schools in Riverview. The Hillsborough School Board voted Tuesday to deny the high school's contract renewal, leaving its future uncertain. [ Kids Community College ]
Published Jun. 16
Updated Jun. 22

In a stunning departure from past practice, the Hillsborough County School Board has denied six charter school proposals, leaving educational opportunities uncertain for as many as 3,600 students and setting up a political battle with Florida’s Republican leaders.

More than 2,300 of the students affected by Tuesday’s actions are enrolled or expected to enroll at the Kids Community College High, Pivot, SouthShore and Woodmont charter schools, which face possible shut-down.

MarQuav'is Hamilton, 22, left, distributes materials for Woodmont Charter School’s summer program to students Ma'Kayla Clement, 13, center, and her sister Kamariah Garrison, 11, of Tampa, last June. The program aimed to provide academic enrichment at a time when many families remained in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
MarQuav'is Hamilton, 22, left, distributes materials for Woodmont Charter School’s summer program to students Ma'Kayla Clement, 13, center, and her sister Kamariah Garrison, 11, of Tampa, last June. The program aimed to provide academic enrichment at a time when many families remained in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The board also denied a request from Mater Academy, a South Florida organization that wanted to build two schools in east Hillsborough for more than 1,300 students beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

A seventh school, Sunlake Academy of Math and Science in Lutz, will be offered a five-year contract extension instead of the 10 years it wanted. District officials do not expect those 818 students to experience any disruption.

Most of the votes cast were 5-2 or 6-1, with board member Melissa Snively voting most consistently to support the charter schools. Snively argued that parents should be allowed to make choices for their children, even if those choices are based on subjective criteria, such as sense of community.

But opponents to charter schools, which now educate nearly 15 percent of Hillsborough’s public school students, say the tide has turned on a board that previously went along with most staff recommendations for approval.

“The word is out there that this is a fight and that we can’t stop now,” board Chair Lynn Gray said Wednesday.

Hillsborough County School Board Chair Lynn Gray
Hillsborough County School Board Chair Lynn Gray [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Tuesday night’s votes set the stage for possible legal conflict with the schools and their for-profit management companies, and with Republican leadership in Tallahassee, which supports the charter movement enthusiastically.

“This is new territory for us in the district and we’re working through a lot of what transpired last night,” Van Ayres, the district’s chief of innovation, said Wednesday.

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Here are the responses from the schools already open:

But, as Gray noted during a Tuesday morning workshop, Hillsborough already loses more than $250 million a year in state funding that follows the more than 30,000 students who opt for charter schools.

Member Nadia Combs, who is especially outspoken about the threat from charter schools, told the board, “It’s really important that we don’t continue to approve charters because of fear of litigation. If we stop five or six charters from coming here, we’re saving the district millions and millions of dollars.”

Hillsborough County School Board Member Nadia Combs.
Hillsborough County School Board Member Nadia Combs. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Her words might have carried weight at the 4 p.m. meeting.

Or the board might have been swayed by an organized group of speakers early in the meeting who urged them to take a hard stand and exercise more oversight. Pat Hall of the League of Women Voters, who has been fighting charter schools for eight years with little to show for her efforts, said in an interview that the evening’s events “felt like a slow motion insurrection was being stopped or slowed down.”

She added: “I hope it’s a tsunami.”

Gray said she believed some on the board were moved by the many new changes to state law that make it easier for charters to open and remain open regardless of the desire of the locally elected board.

“When things seem insurmountable, you have to think, what happens when you don’t do anything?” she said. “Absolutely we have to do something, or we will lose public education.”

The reaction Wednesday from charter school operators was no less impassioned.

“It is so disheartening to see a school board so blatantly put dollars in front of students,” Valora Cole, chairwoman of the board that oversee SouthShore and Woodmont, said in a written statement. “It appears that they are trying to balance their budgets by denying parents the right to make a choice for their child’s education.”

Pivot director Angela Combs issued a statement Thursday, saying the school is disappointed and discussing with its options with board counsel.

“The recent decision by the School Board to not renew Pivot’s charter contract, which was recommended for approval by its staff, is especially disheartening given the diverse and vibrant population Pivot continues to serve with passion,” Combs wrote. “Pivot will take all required measures to ensure it can continue to provide the highest quality of education to its students, parents, and community stakeholders in the 2021-2022 school year and beyond.”

The district is preparing formal notices for the four schools whose renewals are to be denied. Those schools will then have more than three months to study the grounds for denial and, if they choose, prepare their appeals. They can remain open during that time.

If they close, Ayres said, district staff will work with all affected families to find suitable schools for their children. “We will be more than accommodating,” he said.

The board members gave various reasons for their votes of denial.

Combs described monetary conflicts of interest in the Mater group. She handed out news articles about ties between the nonprofit organization and Academica, a for-profit charter school management company, that described government audits and investigations.

Concerning the other schools, board members cited class sizes that were over the state limits, disappointing academic records and financial difficulties. Karen Perez was baffled that a charter school can open in a suburban community already served by excellent schools. “Can somebody help me understand this?” she asked.

Hillsborough County School Board Vice Chair Stacy Hahn.
Hillsborough County School Board Vice Chair Stacy Hahn. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Board member Stacy Hahn was troubled by reported lapses at SouthShore and Woodmont in services to students with special needs. She said those lapses violated federal law and the children’s civil rights.

Cole, in her statement, countered that Woodmont had such a strong record in exceptional student education that the district gave the principal an award.

“There were unfounded accusations and a school board member even stated that the concerns raised were no different than those at many Hillsborough schools,” Cole wrote.

“They are more worried about losing dollars to charter schools than they are worried about why they are losing students. It would seem that if they start to look at their own failing practices and correct them, they may not be in such a financial crisis that they have to try and take away parental choice.”

SouthShore and Woodmont are managed by Charter Schools USA, a large company in Fort Lauderdale. Charter School Associates, a third private company, is the manager for Sunlake.

As the district braces for a response from the companies, lawmakers are pondering the political repercussions.

Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon and a member of the House Early Learning and Elementary Education subcommittee, wonders how the Republican majority will react. The GOP annually has expanded the role of charter schools in Florida, and removed restrictions.

House Democratic Policy Chair Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, sees Tuesday’s development a win for the community. Departing from their original purpose as innovators, she said, charter schools have become “a shadow system of schools” that siphons money away from public schools without following the same rules.

Combined with the growth in private school vouchers, she said, “it’s as though the Legislature has put our traditional public schools under attack. Good on the School Board for pushing back.”

But a win for the district could come at a cost of some children, said Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Riverview. If some of the schools close, he said, “all those people are going to be in limbo.”

Beltran said, ”the idea that the School Board knows better than the individual parents, I guess I disagree with that. Some children learn better in different environments, and it is not anything against the public schools.”